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Shifting policy, shaping practice: when researchers and advocates work together.

In the United States and many other Western countries, governments and policy leaders are keen to harness the potential of preschool education to ameliorate the effects of disadvantage and ensure that all children enter school ready to learn. This emphasis on the early years has been catalyzed by the research base on quality child care and the longitudinal effects of model preschool programs (e.g., Barnett, 1998; Campbell, Pungello, Miller-Johnson, Burchinal, & Ramey, 2001; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997) that demonstrate the beneficial connection between a high-quality preschool education and children's ongoing developmental and academic success. However, while it is heartening that research has been able to shape policy in this way, most of the research tends to be out of synch with what policymakers need to know when initiating new efforts. This lack of synchronicity occurs partly because research is an intensive process, and thus researchers are not always able to make, or be skilled at making, their findings accessible to those who could use this information the most. As a consequence, we probably have more research on why policies fail than research that is timely and usable by a wide range of audiences.

This article reports on our experiences as researchers finding out that working with an advocacy organization helped to address the lag between analyzing and drawing conclusions from research and ensuring that relevant findings had an impact. For many in the world of advocacy or those in the world of research, the partnership that is the center of this story is somewhat unconventional. According to Zervigon-Hakes (1998), researchers and advocacy groups tend to reside in two distinct cultures, each framed by its own norms, values, and practices, that often clash, rather than resonate, with one another. Advocates work in the present; their aim is to help improve programs and initiatives that are of current public interest. "Key findings" often take precedence over the need for reams of data or knowledge of the intricacies of research design. Alternatively, researchers look at the details, and tend to focus not only on the "how" and "why" of their findings, but also on their limitations. In being descriptive rather than prescriptive, researchers know what their findings do and do not say about an issue, and thus are often wary of their data being used out of context, or as a marker to specify action in relation to a particular issue. Given these differences, it is not surprising that researchers and advocates tend to view each other warily from a distance. In our case, however, we found that some of these differences could be turned into assets because of the particular context in which we were working. We report our story here with the aim of providing insights for those interested in making research transformative rather than simply informative.


New Jersey has been involved in large-scale preschool reform as a result of the Abbott v. Burke (1998, 2000) Supreme Court decisions. These decisions ordered the 30 urban school districts serving the state's poorest students to create high-quality preschool systems for all 3- and 4-year-old children beginning in the 1999-2000 school year. High-quality programs were defined as those having a class size of no more than 15 students, as well as having a certified teacher and teacher assistant in each classroom. In addition, each program was required to use a developmentally appropriate curriculum, and provide adequate facilities, special education, bilingual education, transportation, health, and other services as needed.

To rapidly implement this court mandate, many school districts chose to collaborate with existing Head Start and private child care programs already offering preschool programs in their communities. Prior to the Abbott decision, however, the credential needed to be a "teacher" in these programs was a minimum of a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential (Division of Youth and Family Services, 1998). Perhaps not surprisingly, a needs assessment estimated that only 15 percent of teachers in the private settings had a B.A. in early childhood (Barnett, Tarr, Lamy, & Frede, 2001). However, the New Jersey Supreme Court mandated that all teachers in Abbott preschools--unless they already held the Nursery or Kindergarten through Grade 8 certificate and had two years of experience working with preschool-age children--must obtain a minimum of a B.A. with Preschool-Grade 3 (P-3) certification by September 2004. Many teachers were therefore required to go back to school and improve their qualifications or risk losing their jobs. At the same time, many districts, as they moved toward universal access, were unsure where they were going to find suitable teachers.

Until the Abbott decision, only minimal coordination of preschool programs existed across the various sponsoring agencies (Head Start, child care, public school), and many public school districts had little knowledge of the preschool services operating within their boundaries. Upon implementation of the court's decisions, however, new collaborations were in the process of being created, teachers were making decisions as to whether they should stay or move from their current positions, and a new system of teacher preparation was being established to offer P-3 certification programs. As a consequence, research was needed that could inform this reform effort, which is how we came to form a partnership with an advocacy organization.


The partnership consisted of advocates from the Association for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) and researchers from the Graduate School of Education, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. ACNJ is the state's foremost child advocacy agency, assertively advancing policies that help children and families. Its advocacy work involves collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information on the well-being of children in New Jersey so that policymakers can pinpoint problems and work toward solutions (ACNJ, n.d.). Rutgers' Graduate School of Education is primarily a research-oriented university that prepares early childhood teachers, educational leaders, and researchers.

Initially, both groups had separately applied for funding from the Foundation for Child Development to conduct their own activities concerning preschool teacher preparation in New Jersey. ACNJ had developed a proposal to investigate the supply of preschool teachers and determine whether there would be enough qualified candidates to meet the September 2004 deadline. Anecdotal evidence suggested that teachers were experiencing many barriers, including limited access to universities, an inadequate number of required courses (which were often scheduled at inconvenient times), payments for tuition that were slow to clear, and a certification backlog at the Department of Education (DOE). Even as the deadline drew closer, it became apparent that without the data, there was no urgency in addressing the problem.

As researchers, our motivations were to garner funding to investigate the development and implementation of P-3 certification programs. At the time, a number of states were differentiating between early childhood and elementary certificates, and policymakers were denouncing the lack of research on teacher professional preparation and development in the field (e.g., Early & Winton, 2001; Hyson, 2003; Isenberg, 2000). Our goal, therefore, was to get a sense of what kinds of specialized early childhood certification programs were being implemented in the state and how effective teachers were finding their preparation. Thus, the purposes of each proposal were related, and yet quite distinct. However, the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) was reluctant to fund either project independently and proposed instead that they be integrated into an investigation of the P-3 teacher preparation and professional development system of New Jersey that merged advocacy actions with real data. While we agreed to form this partnership, these differing motivations continued to shape the working relationship and the outcomes of the project. More specifically, our differing motivations created both ongoing tensions and possibilities for the work of the partnership.


As the research unfolded and the policy campaign got underway over the three years of this partnership, we experienced several tensions that centered on differing time lines and contrasting views of how to use research findings. However, the partnership also surprised us with the possibilities offered by working with an advocacy organization that knew how to reach a broad audience. Each of these issues is discussed next.

Conflicting Time Lines

The research side of the partnership involved a three-phase research study, the findings of which were to be used by ACNJ to leverage public policy in New Jersey. The first phase of the research was a telephone interview with Abbott preschool teachers, conducted with the aim of determining their teacher education and professional development experiences and the likelihood of their meeting the court mandate for certification. In Phase II of the study, we conducted a telephone interview survey with representatives from the 180 agencies and institutions across the state that provide early childhood teacher preparation and/or professional development. This survey focused on the kinds of content and experiences being offered to teachers, as well as the capacity of current institutions to provide high-quality preparation and professional development. In the third phase of the study, we sought to deepen our understandings of how the new P-3 system was working and overcoming barriers to effective change by utilizing focus groups with key stakeholders.

The original time line for these studies was two years, but the advocates needed data immediately. As mentioned previously, ACNJ had originally applied to FCD to conduct a study on teachers and their ability to meet the court-mandated deadline of February 2004. While the first phase of this study was meant to produce this data, any researcher knows that glitches often happen in the data collection process. In our case, we employed a firm that did not adequately handle the administration of the survey. Therefore, a lot of time was lost to ensuring the accuracy of the data collected. Consequently, the survey data was not ready to be applied to any kind of advocacy or policy work for two years--a discouraging development, considering it had been anticipated that the work would be completed in one year. Not surprisingly, this caused tensions between members involved in the partnership. At one stage, through a constant exchange of phone calls and e-mails, the researchers tried to explain to our partners at ACNJ that it would be irresponsible to release data until we had double-checked our analyses several times. From their point of view, after waiting such a long time and feeling confident about the general accuracy of the information, the most important thing was to get the data out in a usable form as part of the campaign to advocate for an extension of the time line. While both partners were committed to quality, the different foci of our work contributed to an ongoing tension around timeliness of the research.

Contrasting Views Over the Use of Research Findings

As the job of advocates is to use data to leverage change, they tend to focus on what is not working, rather than on the success that has been achieved. In contrast, all aspects of the data can be of interest to researchers whose goal is knowledge generation, not necessarily immediate policy change. However, researchers are also overly cautious about using findings devoid of their original research context. Advocates, on the other hand, tend to be less concerned with the limitations of a study and more focused on using specific findings to articulate a campaign for change. These differing orientations to the purposes of research became evident at two points in our partnership.

The first time occurred when we had completed the report of teachers' progress toward gaining P-3 certification by the imposed deadline. The findings of the first telephone survey had confirmed that approximately 10 percent of teachers would not achieve certification by the deadline of September 2004. For a researcher, 10 percent is not a significant proportion, especially given the fact that when the 2000 Supreme Court decision was handed down, approximately 85 percent of teachers in the private settings had not earned a B.A. in early childhood (Barnett, Tarr, Lamy, & Frede, 2001). Furthermore, no system of professional preparation was in place to meet the increased demand for qualified teachers.

From ACNJ's perspective, the 10 percent figure translated into as many as 500 teachers who would not be able to retain their teaching positions past the court-imposed deadline. Taking this even further, it was possible that the loss of these teachers could threaten the quality of the preschool experience for as many as 7,500 children. By focusing on those who potentially would not make it, ACNJ embarked on a campaign to ensure qualified teachers for every funded preschool program. They did this by first personally contacting every Abbott district superintendent whose district had been identified as being in danger of losing a significant portion of its preschool teaching staff. At the state level, ACNJ used the research to persuade the litigants on the importance of returning to court to request an extension for the teachers. In June 2004, just three months shy of the deadline, the Supreme Court signed an extension order for Abbott preschool teachers who had not completed their certification, but who met particular eligibility criteria.

Another example of these differing purposes arose in the analysis of the data from the second phase, in which we mapped the professional development and teacher preparation system in New Jersey. One of the interesting findings from this phase of the study, based on teacher educators' self-reports, were significant differences between the content offered in community college early childhood programs versus that offered in the four-year certification programs. Some indication existed that two-year schools were providing more coursework for prospective teachers in diversity and the arts. Given that we had so little data on this issue, we argued that it was important to conduct further inquiries into course offerings at two- and four-year colleges by examining syllabi, interviewing students and faculty, and conducting site observations. This preliminary finding helped ACNJ start a statewide campaign for universal articulation agreements between two- and four-year colleges, even though this issue was a minor consideration in our study.

As can be seen in these two examples, our differing perspectives on the findings led to different uses of the data. While the ultimate goal for both groups was improving the preparation of early childhood teachers, the researchers were concerned that the quest for impact was moving the larger research story into the background in favor of a focus on discrete findings. On the other hang we were able to appreciate that ACNJ's use of the data was producing changes in state policy at a pace that we had rarely seen or experienced.

Reaching a Broad Audience

Despite these tensions in our partnership, working with ACNJ also led to the wonderful opportunity of having our research be seen and heard by a broad audience. Typically, researchers are somewhat removed from the education sites they investigate. One reason for this isolation is the assumption that to know something well and be able to explain it requires careful scrutiny from a distance. The distance between researcher and the research is also widened by the technical, jargon-laden language often used by researchers to tell their colleagues and peers about their findings. As the focus of advocacy work is to shape public opinion, garner support, and eventually influence policy, advocates tend to use a variety of communication tools that speak to a broader audience. ACNJ's use of these various communication tools was one of the greatest benefits of the partnership. We had access to people we never would have spoken to, and we learned a great deal about making our research accessible and practical.

As part of their agreement with the Foundation for Child Development, ACNJ was charged with using the findings from the research to help improve policy. Therefore, in addition to disseminating the lengthy reports we had written, ACNJ compiled several policy briefs that summarized the key findings from each phase of the study and outlined steps for action. These briefs informed legislators and the public on two major issues. The first of these was extending the deadline for eligible teachers for completing their qualifications, and the second was helping people recognize the lack of coordination for teacher training and professional development opportunities in the state. The briefs were distributed to the state's early childhood stakeholders, including the governor, the commissioners of education and human service, and several assistant commissioners responsible for Abbott preschool.

After the Abbott decision, ACNJ catalyzed the formation of an early care and education coalition whose members are brought together on a regular basis to discuss strategies for both implementing and improving the quality of early childhood services in the state. Members of this coalition include teacher educators, state legislators, department of education officials at the state and local levels, child care administrators and teachers, parent advocacy groups, public school representatives, and business people. ACNJ uses this organization, and its accompanying listserv of members, to disseminate information and organize public action campaigns.

ACNJ used its connections with other agencies to organize several public forums. Approximately 200 people attended each of these events, whereby they learned about the findings from each of the phases of the study and about our recommendations for reform. As a consequence, there was no lag time in publishing the key findings of each study in scholarly journals or presenting them at academic conferences (which often takes well over a year); instead, the findings were available almost as soon as we had finalized our analysis and written the reports. In doing so, ACNJ not only got the word out about what needed to be done, they also amplified the impact of the research.


We are at a critical moment in the history of early childhood education. Not since the advent of Head Start has so much attention been focused on the field. For those of us in education research, an opportunity exists to participate in a process that could benefit the lives of many thousands of children and their families. If researchers are going to have a voice in the policy dialogues, however, then we will have to work hard to find ways to make our research relevant and accessible to those who have the power to use it.

The partnership with ACNJ provided us with the means to bring our policy-focused research to many more people than we traditionally would have been able to reach. In many ways, the partnership was enormously successful; in a short period of time, the research helped to shape some key state policies, which have helped to make New Jersey an exemplar in state-funded preschool education. Although the forging of a partnership between researchers and advocates was not without tensions or difficulties, we ultimately found that the benefits outweighed the problems. In learning from our experience, we have several recommendations that we believe could make this type of partnership more productive and less problematic.

First, researchers need to be cognizant of the fact that they and their partners are working in different cultures, and that many of the assumptions that researchers can make with each other cannot be made when working with non-researchers. For example, as we discovered, deadlines and time lines meant different things to researchers, who usually set their own deadlines, and to advocates, who must be responsive to outside forces. It is critical, therefore, to keep open the lines of communication and inform each other of changes in deadlines, unforeseen delays, and any other events that might affect the overall project. We suggest that those of you embarking on such a partnership might want to talk about these differences at the beginning of the project, and build in opportunities to address tensions that arise in the course of the work. For example, holding monthly meetings, during which all parties come together to discuss issues as the project gets underway, ensures that a structure is in place to aid communication between partners. Similarly, a joint time line allowing all parties to have a common understanding of the processes and products of the project could help alleviate some misunderstandings by providing a common baseline for interactions.

Another strategy that we found most effective was to include a least one person who shares time between the partnership organizations. In our case, the funders provided ACNJ with monies to hire a full-time employee, on the condition that this person would be trained by the Rutgers team in research methodology. This requirement was extremely valuable to the partnership. The individual employed--Jill--was physically located in both organizations, and was aware of what was happening across the project. Therefore, she served as an informal liaison, conveying information as needed. In addition, Jill became fluent in both advocacy and research language and could serve as an "interpreter" when differences arose. While having a full-time, shared employee may not be possible in every project, we urge you to look for opportunities to share personnel. If this is not possible, we recommend that the partners find ways to create communication bridges--through joint staff meetings, e-mail updates, or conference calls. Do not assume that communication will automatically happen--instead, build the structures for it into the original agreement. In this way, when tensions arise, a means is in place for talking about the problems.

Finally, it is critical to differentiate between tensions that emerge over specific priorities and a tendency to question the motives of partnership members. It is important to remember that, while the methods may vary, everyone is doing this work because they want to make a positive difference for teachers and children. There were many moments in this project when our first response to what ACNJ wanted to do was to be skeptical or protective of the integrity of the research. By remaining open to ACNJ's perspective and allowing ourselves to be won over to some new directions, however, we discovered opportunities that we did not know existed. For example, if we had insisted that we only focus on the success of the 85 percent of teachers who had managed to become certified, ACNJ might not have won the fight for an extension, and several hundred teachers would not have been able to keep their jobs. Obviously, we do not recommend compromising the quality of the research, but we urge researchers to open themselves up to new perspectives.

If researchers are going to have a chance to influence education policy, they are going to have to look beyond academia for partners who also care about the future of early childhood education, partners who can give their work a life beyond peer-reviewed journals and annual research conferences. While our partnership was with a child advocacy organization, many potential partners exist who have a stake in improving the lives of young children. At this critical moment, when policies are changing rapidly and opportunities arise quickly, researchers have to break out of the ivory tower and work more closely with allies in other fields.


Abbott v. Burke, 153 N.J. 480 (1998).

Abbott v. Burke, 163 N.J. 95 (2000).

Association for Children of New Jersey. (n.d.). About us. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from

Barnett, W. S. (1998). Long-term effects on cognitive development and school success. In S. S. Boocock (Ed.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results (pp. 11-44). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W., S., Tarr, J. E., Lamy, C. E., & Frede, E. C. (2001). Fragile lives, shattered dreams: A report on implementation of preschool education in New Jersey's Abbott districts. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Early Education Research.

Campbell F. A., Pungello, E., Miller-Johnson, S., Burchinal, M., & Ramey, C.T. (2001). The development of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood educational experiment. Developmental Psychology, 37, 231-242

Division of Youth and Family Services, Department of Human Services and State of New Jersey. (1998). Manual of requirements for child care centers. Trenton, NJ: Bureau of Licensing.

Early, D. M., & Winton, P.J. (2001). Preparing the workforce: Early childhood teacher preparation at 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 16(3), 285-306.

Hyson, M. (2003). Preparing early childhood professionals: NAEYC's standards for programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Isenberg, J. (2000). The state of the art in early childhood professional preparation. In D. Horm-Wingerd, M. Hyson, & N. Karp (Eds.), New teachers for a new century: The future of early childhood professional preparation (pp. 17-58). Washington, DC: National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education & U.S. Department of Education & Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., Robertson, D. L., & Mann, E. A. (2001). Long term effects of an early childhood intervention on educational achievement and juvenile arrest: A 15-year followup of low income children in public schools. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(18), 2339-2346.

Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). The High/Scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12(2), 117-143(27).

Zervigon-Hakes, A. (1998). Culture clash: Translating research findings into public policy. In W. S. Barnett, & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results (pp. 245-272). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Carrie Lobman is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education and Sharon Ryan is Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick.
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Author:Lobman, Carrie; Ryan, Sharon
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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